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Not-So-Happy (About The) Ending

By Scott Smith in Arts & Entertainment on Feb 1, 2005 4:10PM

You know what they say about guys with big thumbs...The Chicago Film Critics Association and Roger Ebert are engaged in a conspiracy. You heard it here…well, not first. Maybe fourth. Michael Miner addresses it in this week’s Chicago Reader, Zorn talked about it last week, and Ebert spent several column inches on it in Sunday’s Sun-Times. But wait! Don’t click on those links just yet or you’ll hate us forever.

The fuss is over the Oscar-nominated movie Million Dollar Baby and whether it’s the supposed “duty” of film critics to discuss a film’s ending if said ending is integral to the review or involves a political hot potato. We’ve been waiting to talk about this until we saw the flick but we hate it when people give away the endings of movies, so we’re issuing this warning: If you don’t want to know details of the plot of Million Dollar Baby, DO NOT read the rest of this story and don’t click on the links above.

We spill the beans and get our dander up after the jump…

In the film, Hillary Swank plays Maggie, a “girlie tough” boxer who begs Clint Eastwood’s Frankie (a former cut-man) to train her. The film deftly avoids the clichés of both sports genre pictures and old-guy-young-protégé films as it unfolds into a third act that sees Maggie fall victim to a sucker punch that leads to her being paralyzed from the neck down. After losing her leg to infection and realizing she’ll never be able to return to the life she had before, she asks Frankie to unplug her respirator, thus ending her life. He does and as he exits the picture, we learn that his friends never hear from him again. The film is excellent art if for no other reason but its ability to get so many people talking about it.

Miner and Ebert flesh out the details of the controversy (with Miner noting some huge stretches of credibility in the film's third act) in their respective articles but the two main issues here are 1) whether a critic should reveal an ending of a film that might be potentially upsetting or have undue influence on a political debate and 2) whether art endorses a point of view merely by presenting it.

On the first point, Chicagoist is coming down hard in favor of NOT revealing the endings to movies—critics or not. We’ve had to chastise our movie-going friends more than once for revealing plot details ahead of time or even while the movie is going on (“Hey, I think that guy’s girlfriend is a dude!”). Miner makes the point that even mentioning that there’s a surprise ending will make for an unpleasant movie-going experience. But if your job is to discuss a film and you’re prevented from doing so to avoid spoiling it for others, you’re not left with much choice. Ebert recognized the need for discussing the film but said he intended to explore it “after the story was widely known.” Moreover, this whole discussion is proof that you can discuss the political issues a film raises without spoiling someone’s movie-going experience.

As for the second point: bullshit. Do Ebert’s positive reviews of Se7en or In The Bedroom endorse vigilantism? Characters in movies do things that are stupid or immoral all the time. But if their actions are consistent with their character or the film, it’s disingenuous to call the film "bad" because of that choice. For instance, we’d never want to date anybody from the movie Closer but we were impressed with the film’s very adult exploration of infidelity.

The choice Maggie makes is consistent with her character’s experience in the film. She saw boxing as an escape from being a waitress for the rest of her life. If she saw that vocation as hell on earth, then spending the rest of her life as a paraplegic was obviously unthinkable. And since Frankie seems to consign himself to a life of purgatory away from the few friends he has left, the priest’s prediction that Frankie will “lose” himself seems to come true. Not exactly an ending that says “Yay, euthanasia” to us.

One last thought: Miner points out that many activists believe this is Eastwood’s “revenge” for his displeasure over the Americans with Disabilities Act. But since Million Dollar Baby is based on a short story, are we really to hold Eastwood responsible for sticking to the original storyline? (We’re assuming it does, of course. Any F.X. Toole readers out there?) Or do the movie’s critics believe that some stories shouldn’t be told at all?